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WSW: Politics, Intrigue and a Community Effort Part of WMU Landing in Kalamazoo

Western Michigan University

As Western Michigan University opens the doors of its new Alumni Center this weekend, the school’s founding has been given a second look. 

A ribbon cutting ceremony for Heritage Hall is scheduled for Friday. Tours of the center will be given this weekend. The refurbished building was known for over 100 years as East Hall on Western’s original campus.

Western Michigan University’s Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Jim Thomas says how the college, then known as Western Normal School ended up in Kalamazoo is a great story of politics, intrigue and a community that wanted a school in their town.

Thomas says a group of business owners and community leaders organized the effort to bring the new school to Kalamazoo. He says 28 communities were competing for the new college established by the state. Thomas says the women’s vote helped approve a bond issue for the new school. Women could not vote in national elections at that time, but could vote in school board elections. 

Credit Western Michigan University
East Portico of Western Michigan University's Alumni Center

Location and the commitment of the community were key factors in the decision to bring the college to Kalamazoo. Thomas says research shows that being able to locate at the college at the top of Prospect Hill was a key factor in locating the school in Kalamazoo. He says there is no one person that can be singled out for bringing Western Normal School to town. Thomas says many of the records about the founding of Western Normal School are incomplete. But he says research has helped bring more of the story to light.

The alumni center was designed after the university decided to tear down three buildings on East Campus. Many historic preservationists wanted to save all four buildings on that site. Western officials decided to refurbish East Hall to create its new alumni center, Heritage Hall. Thomas says so far the feedback has been positive, even from some people who advocated preserving the original East Campus. 

Interview with Jim Thomas - web version

Thomas says the new alumni center includes an electronic story board that allows people who make a donation to share their stories about Western. Thomas says it’s important to get those stories going forward, in part because the story of the school’s founding was not fully captured.

Gordon Evans became WMUK's Content Director in 2019 after more than 20 years as an anchor, host and reporter. A 1990 graduate of Michigan State, he began work at WMUK in 1996.
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